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I was well aware of the different meanings of rubber, not least because there are the same definitions in my mother-tongue. However, while reading a text about differences between British and American English I read the following lines:

Here's something else for Americans to be aware of: did you know that an eraser is called a rubber in Britain? A good British Mum makes sure her children go to school with a rubber in their pencil case.

So, it's also not new to me that there are differences between British English and American English, but I was and still am surprised that that could somehow be misinterpreted.

Checking the dictionary (OALD and OED) I learned that rubber as condom is indeed an Americanism, though I can hardly believe that British people do not know/use that word.

The other way round, I can imagine to some extent that Americans are not aware of the fact that it isn't that popularly known/used in British English.

Anyway, when talking to British people do I really have to expect that they don't know what I'm talking about when using the word rubber instead of condom?

And when talking to American people, should I avoid rubber and use eraser instead whenever I expect it might sound ambiguous? To be more concrete: the OALD designates rubber (as eraser) as British English, thus do I have to suspect that an American may not be aware of that meaning?

Finally, when talking to both an American and a British at the same time, which words do I use for condom and eraser so that both will understand me correctly?

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I'm not sure about the British perspective, but as an American, I would be surprised if you asked me for a rubber and were expecting an eraser. –  Cameron Jul 16 '12 at 21:23
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In AmE used by much older people, 'rubber' can also refer to 'galoshes' (rubber anti-water shoe cover). Lots of embarassed laughs by the young whippersnappers. Really, does any of this come up in conversation anymore? –  Mitch Jul 16 '12 at 21:41
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At whoever voted for close as general reference: I really like to see that link to "to the standard Internet reference source that can definitively and permanently answer that question" about usages and different connotations in two dialects. –  Em1 Jul 16 '12 at 21:46
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As an Australian, using "rubber" to mean "condom" just sounds weird. Rubber and eraser are interchangeable. I don't know if that's just the area I grew up in or a more Australia-wide thing, though. –  AlbeyAmakiir Jul 17 '12 at 0:59
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@mgb, not that I'm aware. But I agree. We have our own weirdness in language. Even moving from Adelaide to Sydney, I'm finding not all my words mean the same thing! –  AlbeyAmakiir Jul 17 '12 at 3:35

7 Answers 7

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Anyway, when talking to British people do I really have to expect that they don't know what I'm talking about when using the word rubber instead of condom?

Yes. That definition of rubber is not really used in the UK. Some people would know it from personal experiences of Americans. Like me. I know it because I have met some Americans in the UK and this word came up in the context of meeting one of them: in primary school, there was an American pupil in the last year. This definition would not generally, be reliable in the UK.

And when talking to American people, should I avoid rubber and use eraser instead whenever I expect it might sound ambiguous? To be more concrete: the OALD designates rubber (as eraser) as British English, thus do I have to suspect that an American may not be aware of that meaning?

That would be the most reliable approach. As you can see from this discussion, there are some Americans who are aware of the British meaning of rubber but it is not used in the USA. Because of this, it is unreliable in the USA and many Americans might not know this meaning. When talking to Americans, it would be best to use the American word, eraser.

Finally, when talking to both an American and a British at the same time, which words do I use for condom and eraser so that both will understand me correctly?

For a condom, just use the word condom. This is the proper word used in the UK and the USA. As the following links show, using the word rubber to mean a condom, is American slang:

US slang for a condom (Cambridge Dictionaries Online)

[countable] American English informal a condom (Longman Dictionary)

And the USA has this slang for the word, as well as the word itself.

For the word eraser, there will have to be a different kind of answer. This is an example of, one of the many differences in American English. Because the word eraser is not generally, reliable in the UK, it is not certain that any, particular British person, will know its American meaning. Whether or not it will be understood, will depend on which, particular British people you talk to.

If you talk to an American person and a British person at the same time, just use the word condom. It is understood in both countries.

Regarding eraser, you have a few possibilities. If you find out first, that one of the two knows the word used in the other's country; you can use a sentence that has just that word. For example, if you knew that the American person knows the British meaning of rubber, you can use just that. It could be that you are writing with a pencil and want to change some of the writing. You could ask, "have you got a rubber?". If you don't know in advance whether one of the two knows the word used in the other's country; you would need to use a sentence that covers both words. For example, you could ask "have you got a rubber/eraser?". You could also find out by asking, when you talk to them.

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As far as British English is concerned, a rubber is normally an eraser (unless the context specifically indicates otherwise). Using the word for a condom is not unknown; but the usual "rubber" epithet for that is rubber johnny. Having said that, the word condom is far more likely to be used to refer to a condom than any other term. The Government started using "condom" in anti-AIDS advertising in 1987 and it's now acceptable and mainstream with no euphemisms needed.

Received wisdom on this side of the Atlantic is that rubber should not be used in the New World if you mean "eraser", because you don't remove pencil marks with a condom. I'm sure a native American English speaker will say what the right words are on their side of the ocean.

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For AmE, 'eraser' for the thing that removes pencil marks on paper. Usually 'condom' for the prophylactic of procreation; colloquially, 'rubber'. –  Mitch Jul 16 '12 at 21:43
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Oddly, the question calls for a word to "use for both an eraser and a condom" instead of separate words for each. –  jwpat7 Jul 16 '12 at 22:13
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I think this is another one of those contexts like pissed, where quite a few Americans are unaware of (or surprised by) the British meaning (drunk), but most Brits know the American one (angry), and don't see anything odd about a slang word having two different meanings. I suppose that's partly because there are more Americans, so their language variants dominate global media. But I do often get a sense that Americans on average are more likely to think words can only have those meanings sanctioned by (US) dictionaries. –  FumbleFingers Jul 16 '12 at 23:09
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@Fumble: I think you merely notice the one more than the other. Even on english.se there have been many instances where UK participants have been astonished by common American words, meanings, and pronunciations. –  GEdgar Jul 17 '12 at 0:15
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@Em1 In that case, those words are eraser and condom. But using eraser in Britain would cause people to wonder why you didn't say "rubber" like everyone else. –  Andrew Leach Jul 17 '12 at 6:44

My experience indicates that Americans frequently misunderstand the use of "rubber" - even in a classroom setting, where erasers are quite common and condoms often less common. I grew up in Hong Kong and the USA, and asked a classmate in the USA if I could "borrow [his] rubber". I received odd looks from him and nearby classmates, and clarified with "eraser". I have related this story as a humorous anecdote on a number of occasions, and often surprise most people here in the states when I state my request to borrow a "rubber" - this indicates to me that it is not commonly understood by many Americans. As such, I would prefer "eraser" over "rubber" to avoid derailing a conversation or request.

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The fact that an American is in a classroom setting doesn't change the fact that eraser is simply not a commonly recognized way to interpret rubber in American English, just as public school would never mean "elite independent school" instead of "traditional government-funded school" and car valeting would never mean "thorough cleaning and polishing of a car" instead of "working as an attendant who parks cars for customers." –  choster Jul 17 '12 at 16:33
    
@choster are you indicating extraneous information? –  michaelc Jul 23 '12 at 16:30
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I am saying that the American reaction is not a "misunderstanding" as in as taking one meaning for another. There is only one familiar meaning of rubber in American English. –  choster Jul 23 '12 at 18:44

I think, from the variants presented in these answers, that the answer to your final question is simple. If you're aiming for maximum clarity, use "condom" for condoms, "eraser" for erasers, and skip the ambiguous "rubber" altogether.

That is, if you're aiming for clarity. :)

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See the OP's last question: "when talking to both an American and a British at the same time", this will remove ambiguities. Also, if you're talking to someone who's neither British nor American, and you're not sure where he gets his vocabulary. –  Avner Shahar-Kashtan Jul 18 '12 at 7:51
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Whether or not it will remove ambiguity, will depend heavily on whether the particular, British person would know the word eraser. Eraser is American English and not really used in the UK, which already has a literally English word for it: rubber. That would be an assumption to say that you would have clarity, when using this word with British people. –  Tristan Jul 18 '12 at 19:48
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To think that it would be relatively easy to understand it, would be an assumption. I know from my primary school experience, that this was not the case. When an eraser was asked for by the American pupil, I and the other children at the table asked "what's that?". They then explained by saying what it was for. It's not guaranteed that all British people would know that word. It's worth remembering that American English is not the language of England, or the rest of the UK. –  Tristan Jul 19 '12 at 14:00
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Well, of course it isn't. That's what this whole question and thread is about. –  Avner Shahar-Kashtan Jul 19 '12 at 14:02
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Good point, "Eraser" is not ambiguous because it is either understood directly or not understood, whereas "Rubber" is ambiguous since it could mean two different things to different people. It's better for someone to not understand, than to misunderstand. –  Xantix Sep 12 '12 at 7:26

Why is solid latex known as rubber? Because of its ability to rub out pencil marks! That being the case, there should be no embarrassment in asking someone for a rubber.

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Quite true. I have the distinct feeling that many decades ago I had teachers who referred to erasers as India rubbers to head off potential schoolboy sniggers. But that was Britain, where mostly we called the other ones johnnies rather than rubber johnnies. I've no idea why we chose to discard a different word from each pair, rather than the same one. –  FumbleFingers Jul 31 '12 at 22:45

Anyway, when talking to British people do I really have to expect that they don't know what I'm talking about when using the word rubber instead of condom?

I'm a Brit living close to London, so I can help with this one.

In the UK, "Rubber" and "Johnny" are the two most popular colloquialisms for Condom. Johnny is more common today - Rubber is more of a nineties term.

However, our first understanding of a "Rubber" is an "Eraser". We do not use the term "Eraser".

If you ask a man in the street for a Rubber, he will think you are talking about an Eraser.

If you ask him in a Club, well... :-)

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Also, American slang for a hospital gown is "Johnny", so English people in US hospitals should be aware that if a nurse asks you to put on a "Johnny", it's probably a mistake to slip on a condom.

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